THE HARD PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Among the hardest problems currently facing philosophy and science is understanding how consciousness can emerge from nothing more than physical activity in the brain. How is it possible that the three-pound lump of cellular tissue floating in our skulls is able to produce the full spectrum of our mental lives? How do we get the experience of what it is like to be us from the relatively simple cellular interactions taking place in our head? The answers to questions like these seem beyond the scope of scientific understanding. Fields such as psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience can tell us how consciousness correlates with activity in the brain, but no amount of scientific knowledge seems sufficient to explain how physical activity in the brain actually gives rise to consciousness.
Our inability to explain consciousness in terms of the brain has rightly been deemed by philosophers as “the hard problem” of consciousness, and I argue that there are only two possible ways to answer it: either the hard problem of consciousness can be answered mechanistically, or it cannot. In other words, there is either an uninterrupted chain of cause-and-effect linking the brain to conscious experience, or else consciousness is a fundamental property of the world.
If consciousness can be explained mechanistically, we simply need to wait until some new, paradigm-shifting scientific discovery comes around. Just as the discovery of DNA explained the mechanics of biological life, so too may there be some yet-to-be-discovered phenomenon that will one day explain the causal connection between consciousness and the brain. In this essay, however, I argue that this view is untenable. I claim that any discovery in science, no matter how profound, will always fail to explain how consciousness can arise from physical matter.
If, on the other hand, consciousness cannot be explained mechanistically, then it must be an irreducible part of our world. This general view is known as panpsychism, and it argues that consciousness is present not only in ourselves, but throughout the entire cosmic clockwork of the universe. Just like space and time, consciousness may very well be fundamental to the natural world. This may seem counterintuitive, but I argue that panpsychism offers the only plausible answer to the hard problem of consciousness — a problem whose solution is critical if we ever hope to gain a true, coherent understanding of consciousness.
THE VITALISM ARGUMENT
Up until the 19th century, many scientists and philosophers made the same claims about biological life as I am currently making about consciousness. These individuals felt that living things were driven by a “vital spark” that existed beyond the scope of physical explanation.¹ Since this vital spark could not be explained mechanistically, the so-called “vitalists” claimed that the forces responsible for biological life were a fundamental, irreducible part of our world.
With the discovery of DNA and protein synthesis, however, the principles of vitalism were promptly refuted. It turns out that biological life really can be explained in terms of mechanistic processes, and nowhere in the picture do we find the need for a “vital spark” that eludes physical explanation. Before the discovery of DNA, however, we were completely unequipped to understand the mechanics that gave rise to living things. We were missing the most critical piece of the puzzle, and until we found it, we were in no position to understand how life worked. The problem of biological life, then, was really just a limit on our scientific understanding of biology. We simply hadn’t made the requisite scientific progress needed to study the biochemical nuts and bolts that make life possible.
Most scientists and philosophers today believe that the hard problem of consciousness is just a contemporary version of vitalism. It is a “problem” only insofar as we do not yet have the scientific understanding needed to answer it. Trying to answer the hard problem of consciousness now, they argue, is like trying to answer the problem of biological life before the discovery of DNA and proteins. Scientists like Francis Crick and Brian Greene believe that with more resources and a better understanding of consciousness, the challenges surrounding the hard problem will one day dissolve in light of future scientific discoveries.
The issue with comparing the hard problem to vitalism, however, is that they are not actually valid comparisons. Not only is consciousness distinct from the biological processes of life, it is also distinct from any other phenomenon in the known universe. Life, brains, galaxies, and anything else that we could conceivably observe through experience can all in principle be explained in terms of their constituent mechanics with a sufficiently strong scientific understanding. Consciousness, however, is experience itself. It simply exists on an entirely different level of explanation than other phenomena in the universe.
The explanatory gap between consciousness and the brain can be described with a more representative analogy. Imagine, for instance, that you are trying to explain the color blue to a blind person. You tell them that the color blue is a certain wavelength of light, that it is coded in the brain by certain photoreceptors, and that it is processed along certain neural pathways. Despite all this information, the blind person will not be any closer to a conception of the actual color blue. And this will always be the case, regardless of how many more scientific discoveries we make about the color blue in the future.
Any attempt to explain consciousness in terms of the brain will suffer from the same challenges we face in trying to explain the color blue to a blind person. There is simply an impassable explanatory distance between consciousness and anything else that shows up in our universe — whether it be the brain, biological life, or planetary systems. We could have a genuinely complete physical understanding of the brain, and it would still be insufficient to explain how consciousness can emerge from neural activity alone — just as no explanation of the color blue will ever be sufficient to convey the actual experience of the color blue to a blind person. The mechanics of physical phenomena simply exist on a different level of explanation than consciousness, and no scientific breakthrough will ever bridge that gap.
If a complete understanding of the brain fails to explain the emergence of consciousness, then the emergence of consciousness cannot be reduced any further and must be accepted as a brute fact of the world. This, however, wouldn’t be the first time we’ve made such a concession: the existence of space and time have also been accepted as brute facts of the world. We know, for instance, that objects in the universe are made up of physical matter and that matter, in turn, is composed of atoms. We also know that atoms are made up of protons and neutrons, which themselves are composed of quarks. In due time, science will undoubtedly discover what quarks are made up of, and it will eventually discover too what that which makes up quarks is made up of. And yet none of this will contribute toward explaining how or why space actually exists in the first place. It is simply a brute fact of the world that it does.
If consciousness cannot in principle be explained mechanistically, then it too must be among these brute facts. We can study the different properties of consciousness and discover how it operates throughout our world, but when it comes to explaining how consciousness actually emerges from the brain, we will inevitably reach a dead end. This explains why the hard problem has proven so hard: we have been trying to mechanistically explain the irreducible existence of something that simply is.
Some people argue that it is unparsimonious, and therefore unscientific, to extend consciousness to everything in the universe when we can only be sure of consciousness in ourselves. But if this were true, it would also be true that our understanding of space and time is unparsimonious. After all, we have only seen space and time at work in the observable universe. If it is unparsimonious to assume consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe as a whole, then it must be unparsimonious to assume space and time are fundamental to the universe as a whole as well — since we can only be sure of them where we’ve observed them firsthand.
Needless to say, this is not how space and time work. When dealing with fundamental properties of the world, it is all or nothing. Space and time do not just exist in certain parts of the universe. They are built into the very fabric of it. And if, like space and time, consciousness is a fundamental property of the world, then denying consciousness as part of this universal fabric is actually the least parsimonious thing we could do, since it affirms consciousness in ourselves while denying it to the rest of the universe.
Another common objection against panpsychism is that it leads to absurd conclusions. For instance, many people feel that panpsychism grants inanimate entities such as rocks or trees consciousness similar to our own. This leads to conclusions reminiscent of philosopher Philip Goff, who claims that “chopping down a tree [may be] an act of immediate moral significance.”²
Claims such as these miss the mark of panpsychism completely and have done a great deal to establish panpsychism’s current reputation as a pseudoscience. If rocks and trees possess consciousness, they only do so in the sense that a quark takes up space — which is to say that rocks and trees have effectively no consciousness at all. To claim, then, that rocks and trees experience sensations, emotions, and thoughts the same way humans do is like claiming that a quark has the depth, density, and shape of a mountain. It is simply a misrepresentation of the view.
If we accept panpsychism and treat consciousness as a fundamental property of the universe, the hard problem ceases to be a problem. Human consciousness can be understood simply as the instantiation of a fundamental universal property — much like how mountains are simply the instantiation of space. If panpsychism is true, the hard problem isn’t actually a problem that needs solving. We will have created the problem ourselves by asking the wrong question.
If, however, we deny consciousness as a fundamental property of the universe, there is no possibility of ever answering the hard problem — we will continue in vain to explain the color blue to a blind person. Of course, learning about the brain and how it relates to consciousness is still a practical and worthwhile project; but it will never offer a satisfactory answer to the hard problem in the way that panpsychism does.
A BRIEF RESPONSE TO THE COMBINATION PROBLEM
One of the most common objections raised against panpsychism is known as “the combination problem,” and it is regarded by philosophers as the most significant problem panpsychism as a theory currently faces. The combination problem essentially asks how individual entities — each supposedly with their own consciousness — can combine to form a new, coherent conscious entity. Philosopher Annaka Harris offers a useful description of the combination problem in her essay “Consciousness Isn’t Self-Centered.” She writes the following:
“If the most basic constituents of matter do indeed have some level of conscious experience, how is it that when they form a more complex system — such as a brain — those small points of consciousness combine to create a new conscious subject?”³
This objection against panpsychism, like so many others, is entirely misguided. After all, couldn’t we pose a similar “combination problem” to the nature of physical objects? When we look at a table, for instance, we find that the table is composed of billions of physical atoms, such as carbon and oxygen. Each of those constituent atoms that make up the table have their own individual spatial properties — and yet this does nothing to challenge the actual existence of the table. As literally the entire world around us shows, there is nothing problematic about combining individual parts to form new, cohesive entities.
If the combination problem does not make us question whether or not physical objects exist, then the combination problem poses no issue for panpsychism. Human consciousness can be understood as a composition of individual conscious entities just as tables are understood as a composition of individual spatial entities. Once again, there is no problem that actually needs solving here; we have simply been confusing ourselves by asking the wrong questions.
PANPSYCHISM IN PRACTICE
Buddhist traditions such as Dzogchen, Zen, and Vipassana have produced contemplatives who have devoted their lives solely to studying the subjective nature of consciousness. Meditation practice, of course, does not qualify one to make claims about reality — but it is nonetheless worth noting that the insights from these contemplatives bear a striking resemblance to the principles of panpsychism. For instance, one of the most common themes throughout contemplative literature is the universal nature of consciousness. In these traditions, consciousness is understood not as an independent, discrete entity belonging to an individual but rather as a fundamental property of the universe in which we are all instantiations.
The following excerpts are selected from various teachers and traditions that reflect this panpsychist principle:
“What we essentially are, and what the universe is, essentially is one single, infinite, indivisible whole from which all objects and selves derive their seemingly separate existence.”⁴
“[Consciousness] is something universal…like the space inside a clay vase, which, even though it is temporarily limited by the shape of the vase, is not different from the space outside, surrounding the vase…”⁵
“One mind permeates into all living beings; all beings that are permeated by life are one mind.”⁶
“The first two verses of the Six Vajra Verses explain the condition of the primordial base…pointing out that although there apparently exist an infinite number of things and phenomena, their real nature is one and the same.”⁷
“This is the nature of our own mind, and it is the same for all sentient beings — the essence of everyone’s mind is the same.”⁸
“You are so accustomed to thinking of yourselves as bodies having consciousness that you simply cannot imagine consciousness as having bodies…[B]odily existence is but a state of mind, a movement in consciousness…[T]he ocean of consciousness is infinite and eternal…”⁹
“…Dharma primarily teaches that there is buddha nature present within the mind streams of all sentient beings.”¹⁰
“Everything is life as buddha-dharma. Each and every being is expounding buddha-dharma. Even in a tiny speck of dust, buddha-dharma is stored.”¹¹
The teachings of contemplative masters do not prove the metaphysical truth of panpsychism. For all their wisdom and insight, contemplatives are sometimes liable to make deeply unscientific claims. But it should nevertheless strike us as interesting that individuals across time, culture, and practice independently converge on insights perfectly aligned with panpsychism. While this does not qualify as scientific evidence, it does offer a certain empirical corroboration of panpsychist principles that is worth our attention.
Until the hard problem of consciousness is resolved, there can be no unified theory of consciousness. And, as I have argued earlier, no amount of scientific progress will ever explain in a satisfying way how physical activity in the brain is capable of producing consciousness. If we continue to reject panpsychism and claim that consciousness is not a fundamental property of the universe, we will be left with the impossible task of mechanistically explaining something that is beyond mechanistic explanation.
If, however, we do accept panpsychism, we find that there is no hard problem left to solve. It simply no longer applies. We do not need to explain how consciousness emerges from physical matter because we accept as an irreducible fact that it does. As I have argued earlier, we have good reasons to accept this.
If panpsychism is true, there are interesting implications that follow. For instance, if consciousness emerges from nothing more than physical activity in the brain, it may also be the case that consciousness can be supported by physical substrates radically different from our own. A future question of importance will be whether or not consciousness can be supported by the same silicon substrates that support our computers. If it can, this will have profound implications for artificial consciousness, brain-machine interfaces, and neural engineering.
Panpsychism also gives us a relatively new framework to pursue future questions related to consciousness. When we look at the animal kingdom, for instance, we might wonder whether there is a “spectrum” of consciousness that increases as a function of neural complexity, or whether consciousness is a dichotomy and neural complexity only limits what one is conscious of.
All of these are interesting questions, but the most fascinating implication of panpsychism is that consciousness is built into the very fabric of the cosmos. We should find it both genuinely exciting and mystifying that that which allows us to perceive our environment, to experience awe at our world, to form ambitions and passions, to feel a deep love toward others — that same fundamental thing is writ throughout every nook and cranny of our universe.
REFERENCES & NOTES
- For instance, in 1932 Scottish physiologist J.S. Haldane writes: “What intelligible account can the mechanistic theory of life give of the…recovery from disease and injuries? Simply none at all, except that these phenomena are so complex and strange that as yet we cannot understand them. It is exactly the same with the closely related phenomena of reproduction. We cannot by any stretch of the imagination conceive a delicate and complex mechanism which is capable, like a living organism, of reproducing itself indefinitely often.” (Cited in C. Sagan. 1995. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, p. 272.)
- The full quote is: “If you think a tree is a conscious organism of some kind, albeit a very alien one, then it’s a locus of value in its own right [and] chopping down a tree is an act of immediate moral significance.” (Goff, P., & Horgan, J. (2020, July 19). Debating Panpsychism | John Horgan & Philip Goff [Mind-Body Problems]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/sIuPf3SMkV8. See timestamp 54:26)
- Harris, A. (2020, February 27). Consciousness Isn’t Self-Centered — Issue 82: Panpsychism. Retrieved from http://nautil.us/issue/82/panpsychism/consciousness-isnt-self_centered.
- Spira, R. (Interviewee). Harris, S. (Producer). Waking Up [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://samharris.org/subscriber-extras/waking-course-nature-awareness/. See timestamp 9:00.
- Norbu, N., Clemente, A., & Shane, J. (1996). Dzogchen: The self-perfected state. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, p. 73.
- Uchiyama, K., Okumura, S., Leighton, T. D., & Dōgen. (1997). The wholehearted way: A translation of Eihei Dōgen’s Bendōwa with commentary. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, p. 136.
- Norbu, N., Clemente, A., & Shane, J. (1996). Dzogchen: The self-perfected state. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, p. 83.
- Thrangu, K., Gangshar, K., & Choephel, D. K. (2011). Vivid awareness: The mind instructions of Khenpo Gangshar. Boston: Shambhala, p. 136.
- Maharaj, M. (1977). I am that. Bombay: Chetana, p. 285.
- Thrangu, K., Gangshar, K., & Choephel, D. K. (2011). Vivid awareness: The mind instructions of Khenpo Gangshar. Boston: Shambhala, p. 138.
- Uchiyama, K., Okumura, S., Leighton, T. D., & Dōgen. (1997). The wholehearted way: A translation of Eihei Dōgen’s Bendōwa with commentary. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, p. 152.